The problem with the films of Michael Haneke is that it always seems that their aesthetic virtues must be considered separately from looking at the rights or wrongs of their political content. A case in point may be his much acclaimed 2005 film Caché [Hidden] (2005), praiseworthy for its meticulously constructed crescendoing sense of dread through minimalist means, but whose pretensions to commentary on post-colonial politics were naïve at best.
This duality becomes more prescient to me when considering those films of his I personally dislike – in particular La pianiste (2001) and Funny Games (1997) – films whose technical virtues are not able to overcome political peccadilloes I find more difficult to swallow. A viewing of his new film, The White Ribbon, serves only to reinforce this opinion of his work, for once again here is a film whose masterful realization is not fully reinforced by a coherent ideology; indeed Haneke’s mastery of tone, creating such a successfully ambiguous mysterious air, possibly has the detrimental effect of watering down the film’s political motives.
The film’s political cards appear to be lain face up on the table as the film opens, when we hear an as-yet unidentified narrator explain that the story we are about to be told comes from his memories of some strange events which happened many years before, and in some way explain what happened in his country later on. Though initially the mise en scene very deliberately offers little in the way of information as to geographical or historical setting, it becomes apparent that we are in a northern Lutheran German village close to the turn of the twentieth century, and that the older narrator who corresponds to a younger man in the story is talking with the hindsight of the experience of the rise of Nazism.
Before considering the film’s politics, it must first be emphasized what a brilliantly constructed film The White Ribbon is. As is typical of Haneke’s best work, there is a simmering sense of dread underlying almost every scene – even the film’s lighter moments, almost unheard of from this director, feel never too far from violent catastrophe – and the sense of peril, despite the relative lack of real on-screen drama, cumulatively makes for a nerve-wracking watch for most of its 144 minutes. As ever, this creeping tone is largely due to the director’s handling of violence, only selectively shown on-screen yet always threatening to surface at any given moment. When it does come, it is graphic but not sensational, all the more potent for being presented stark and unheralded.
It is one such violent act which opens the film: one afternoon, the village doctor is thrown from his horse by a carefully planted trip-wire, throwing the other villagers into shock and rumour as to who could have done such a beastly act in this seemingly placid rural idyll. That event then seems to be the trigger for a series of apparently unconnected incidents – escalating from an accident with farm machinery to blatant acts of vandalism and sadism which suggest sinister forces are at work. As seen before in Le corbeau (1943), it only takes very little for local civility to descend into suspicion and recrimination, and so we begin to see the murky underweave beneath the tranquil pastoral scene: key figures of this late-feudal society such as the pastor and the baron are shown to be corrupt pillars of a brutal patriarchical system who habitually inflict vengeful cruelty upon their wives and children.
While Clouzot’s film may be a more explicit narrative reference point, the overall feel of the film is as if Ingmar Bergman had directed Village of the Damned (1960). The cinematography readily recalls the formal – here eerily over-formal – compositions of Sven Nykvist, but the major debt to the Swede might be in the person of Burghart Klaußner playing the local pastor, physically a ringer for Bergman regular Gunnar Björnstrand but closer in character to the wicked Bishop Edvard Vergerus in Fanny and Alexander (1982), all bottled-up rage and repression and with ideals of purity for others severely lacking from his own soul. Observation of outwardly visible community rituals such as religious penance and harvest festivals only serve as the shop-front for the behind-closed-doors rituals of punishment and humiliation. Around this theatre of cruelty there swarms a strange group of children, seemingly always there or thereabouts when tragedy strikes, and at least in the eyes of the narrator are implicated in them.
The moral message of the story would appear to be quite apparent: this violent patriarchal society bred a generation of Germans who would grow up willing to follow a strong, cruel leader who conveniently offered them an easy scapegoat to victimise in the form of the Jewish people. Most obviously this manifests itself in the the titular ribbon which young transgressors are made to wear as a symbol of purity – a disturbing echo of the Jewish stars of Nazi Germany. Here, though, is where the film begins to run into some problems. This idea as a standalone thesis as to the roots of Nazism is clearly a reductive one, ignoring a whole historiography of economic and political factors; if a denunciation specifically of the cruelty of authoritarian Lutheranism then why did fascism not spread to, say, Sweden? How does the experience of one small rather backward village come to represent the urban proletariat who would vote Hitler into power some twenty years later? By disregarding the politics of post-Bismarck Germany, Austrian Haneke fails to deal with the very German-ness of the Nazis’ willing executioners.
That the film does not try to answer these questions is not a flaw in itself, since the lack of specificity in terms of the story’s pre-industrial setting gives the story a kind-of universality. Indeed, the director’s own statements in interviews describing his film as being about “the origins of every type of terrorism” illustrate that he is aiming more for a general comment on human nature rather than dealing with the specifics of twentieth century Germany. On this plane, the story as moral tale functions more satisfactorily, yet one cannot help but feel that in doing so it falls between two stools; on the one hand not convincing as a document of pre-war Germany and on the other offering the over-simplification that all so-called terrorism stems from patriarchy and childhood repression. By way of comparison, Amarcord (1973) made for a much more convincing argument as to the roots of Italian fascism by dealing with more broadly national and regional characteristics, The Conformist (1970) the roots within individual psychological dysfunction.
There is also the problematic issue of the framing device: the narrator, speaking many years after the events being shown, concedes that he has more than a degree of uncertainty over some of the details of the story. Indeed, given the film’s large cast of characters, how can such an apparently omniscient view of their private interactions be trusted, particularly given through distorting lens of memory? The narrator and the local girl he begins to court are presented as the only wholly sympathetic characters in the village, but can we trust this apparently one-sided account? In the hands of a less skilled director this could be seen as narrative carelessness, yet Haneke’s talent and reputation suggests something else; indeed, given his record of contemptuousness for his largely bourgeois audience, is there a certain degree of game playing going on here? Those fleeting moments of tenderness in the film are in this director’s hands disquieting enough as to ring alarm bells – by making the audience hope for a happy ending, is he tricking them into their assent to rewriting history? It is a narrative subtlety, but another item in the list of questions this ambiguous film seeks not to provide easy answers to.
It seems ironic, if not entirely surprising, that while The White Ribbon walked off with the top prize at Cannes this year Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist (2009) was roundly jeered by the same crowd, since the two directors are really not too dissimilar in their cinematic visions, and both films are fascinating extensions to their respective cinematic grammars. If there is a difference then the former is cerebral while the latter visceral, and those stalking the croisette undeniably prefer the first of these to the second; I might also suggest that the former has the type of sobriety which is screaming out for it to be labelled a ‘masterpiece’ much louder than Brad Pitt’s throwaway line at the end of Inglourious Basterds (2009). That is for others and posterity to decide, but while there is no denying Haneke’s fearsome talent, for this viewer he is still yet wholly to convice.